The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) announced on Monday that Scott Peterson, who was convicted of murdering his wife Laci Peterson and unborn child in 2004, was moved off of death row following a 2020 overturning of the death sentence by the state Supreme Court.
The case itself dates back to 2002, when, on Christmas Eve of that year, Modesto-native Peterson killed his wife and unborn child then threw their bodies into the San Francisco Bay. Police became suspicious of Peterson because of his demeanor, with evidence quickly building up against him in the following months. In April, after the bodies were found in Richmond, police quickly went out to arrest him in La Jolla outside of San Diego, fearful that he may flee to Mexico.
His case and subsequent trial became one of the largest news stories of 2003 and 2004. Charged with one count of first-degree murder and one count of second-degree murder in a Stanislaus County court, the trial began in June of 2004 and lasted for months. Following close coverage by the media, the jury found him guilty of both counts that November, with a judge later giving a death sentence the following March. Peterson was subsequently sent to death row at San Quentin State Prison.
In 2012, Peterson’s legal team appealed on the basis that Peterson was deprived of a fair trial. For the next several years, appeals continued, with Peterson’s lawyers zeroing in on how several jurors were not properly dismissed for saying they personally disagreed with the death penalty but would follow the law and have it be used in his case. Complicating matters was Governor Gavin Newsom’s 2019 decision to halt all executions on death row as long as he was Governor. As he will likely be reelected next month, this meant that Peterson could stay alive until at least 2027.
Peterson moved off of death row
However, that turned out to be moot the next year when the California Supreme Court overturned the death penalty ruling in his case, while also maintaining that he was still guilty. An appellate court subsequently resentenced him to life in prison without the possibility of parole in 2021, leading to Peterson finally leaving San Quentin this month.
According to prison officials, Peterson was quietly moved from San Quentin’s death row to Mule Creek State Prison in Amador County, with the announcement only coming after the move to avoid large amounts of press.
While the final move came at a previously scheduled time, the overall timing of the move rekindled many feelings surrounding the case from nearly 20 years ago, as well reopened questions about the death penalty in California and Newsom’s now 3 year long moratorium on executions. With election day only two weeks away, many closer elections may see a small ripple effect coming from this.
“Don’t expect a big hit on Newsom’s numbers,” explained LA-based lawyer Edgar Montoya, who has been a part of legal teams associated with death penalty cases, to the Globe on Tuesday. “The courts can be slow on some of these matters, but it just happened to coincide with the election coming up. Newsom is safe, but as we’ve seen from past changes in sentences of notorious killers, one change can cause people to rethink a candidate because of the death penalty issue. Many still remember the Peterson case like it was yesterday, so seeing him now out of death row could spark vote changes as well. Thee are a lot of close races nearby where this all happened, so there may be some difficult questions coming in the next few weeks for people there. You know, people really hate murder, and a lot of people hate it when the convicted person manages to avoid the harshest penalty. That anger can manifest as political change.”
Peterson is expected to stay at Mule Creek for the rest of his life barring future changes to his sentence.